Date Awarded

2017

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (M.Sc.)

Department

Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Advisor

Romuald N. Lipcius

Committee Member

Mary C. Fabrizio

Committee Member

Rochelle D. Seitz

Committee Member

Matthew L. Kirwan

Abstract

Predator populations can have significant impacts on prey recruitment success and prey population dynamics through consumption. Young, inexperienced prey are often most vulnerable to predation due to their small size and limited evasion capabilities. To reduce the risk of predation, new recruits and young juveniles typically settle in structured nursery habitats, such as seagrass beds, which promote higher survival by acting as refuges from predators. Thus, successful recruitment to the adult portion of the population is often dependent on the availability of suitable nursery habitat. In this thesis, I used field tethering experiments and gut content analyses to assess the role of habitat, body size, finfish predation, and cannibalism on the survival of one of the most ecologically and economically important species in Chesapeake Bay: the blue crab Callinectes sapidus. In field tethering experiments, survival probability of juvenile blue crabs in York River nursery habitats (i.e. seagrass beds, sand flats) increased significantly and additively with crab size and SAV cover. Images of predation events during tethering experiments revealed cannibalism by adult blue crabs to be a major source of juvenile mortality. Gut content analyses from three field studies identified seven predators of juvenile blue crabs in lower Chesapeake Bay nursery habitats: adult blue crabs, striped bass Morone saxatilis, red drum Sciaenops ocellatus, silver perch Bairdiella chrysoura, weakfish Cynoscion regalis, Atlantic croaker Micropogonias undulatus, and oyster toadfish Opsanus tau. Using frequency of consumption and diet proportion metrics, I determined striped bass, red drum, and silver perch to be the most impactful finfish predators on juvenile mortality, in addition to cannibalism. Atlantic croaker and oyster toadfish play minor roles in juvenile mortality in Chesapeake Bay nursery habitats. The probability of juvenile crabs being present in a predator’s gut was also significantly higher in seagrass beds than in unvegetated sand flats. Food web dynamics are an important aspect of ecosystem-based fisheries management. Understanding the ecological interactions between populations, and their environment, can provide insight into natural population fluctuations of valuable fishery species such as the blue crab. This thesis demonstrated the positive effects of body size and SAV cover on juvenile crab survival, indicating the importance of seagrass nursery habitat for blue crab population dynamics in Chesapeake Bay. However, despite the predator refuge offered by SAV, high densities of predators and prey in seagrass beds resulted in greater consumption of juveniles in those habitats. Key predators of juvenile blue crabs were also identified and their relative impacts were estimated. The predator-prey relationships revealed in this thesis were integrated into a revised food web for blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay, in the hopes of informing future ecosystem-based management efforts.

DOI

http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.21220/V5WM92

Rights

© The Author

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